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A Water’s History of the United States


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges


Water physically shapes the contours of the United States: The Great Lakes up in the North, the Rio Grande and the Gulf in the South, as well as the two oceans in the East and West delimit the country’s continental boundaries. But historically, water has played a role in the definition of the US as a nation that goes beyond mere geography. Water, indeed, has been the main instrument through which the US power has been projected and executed overseas. The control of waterways, straits, and canals has been crucial to the building of a global empire, and so has been the conquest of marine environments such as islands, archipelagos, and chokepoints. Similarly, water has defined the development of American democracy at home, determining its outputs and its limits, and representing a crucial proving ground for both its institutions and inclusivity. The ways in which access to water resources has been managed and granted and the ways in which water has been treated for urban, agricultural, and industrial purposes have all contributed to shaping and continuously negotiating notions of citizenship and rights in the United States.

Situated at the crossroads of environmental, social, and political history, and grounded on a blue history approach that moves the point of observation away from the land and places it on water, this course will offer students an original overview of US history. Through the lenses of water and water-based dynamics, students will appreciate the evolution of American democracy, the expansion of the federal government, and the growth of American power on a global scale not as independent historical phenomena but as part and parcel of a process of exploitation, anthropization, commodification, and progressive deterioration of the planet’s hydrological systems. From the use of water as a source of energy to the depletion of water as a consequence of hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal turns, students will engage with the existential relationship between America’s national identities, politics, and power on the one hand, and water environs on the other.

By the end of the course, students will gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of those historical processes that lie at the roots of our contemporary environmental and climate challenges.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) carry out a common assignment;

  • 2) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including;
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of the specialisation General History, more specifically:
    American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe;

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation General History, more specifically of American exceptionalism; analysis of historiografical and intellectual debates;

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

  • 8) The student will develop a deeper understanding of US and global environmental history

  • 9) The student will learn the methods, concepts and challenges of blue history, as an approach aimed at teckoning with the interplays between (national) social, cultural and political histories and water

  • 10) The student will investigate the origins and developments of the Anthorpocene, and in particular of the so-called “great acceleration,” that is that period roughly comprised between 1945 and today in which irreversible human-made changes to the earth’s bio-geochemical systems have occurred at an unprecedented pace

  • 11) The student will historicize and problematize current issues of international and public dfebate such as climate change and environmental justice.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required)

This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If you are not able to attend, you are required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If you do not comply with the aforementioned requirements, you will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method

By the end of the course students will have to write a paper based on historiography on a concrete case-study. Throughout the course students will work in groups on a project dealing with one of the following broad areas:

  • Water and US politics

  • Water and US culture

  • Water and US society

  • Water and US economy

The students will present the result of their teamwork collectively during an end-of-the-course conference.


  • Written paper (5000-6000 words, based on historiography, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 8-11

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-4, 6-11

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 5


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation: 30%

  • Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Brightspace course.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organised.

Reading list

  • Martin V. Melosi, Water in North American Environmental History (London: Routledge, 2022)

  • Additional literature, including the databse list for research assignments, is to be announced in class and/or on Brightspace


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.